So my daughter and I were playing Scribblenauts for the first time last night. Based on our experience, I think it’s one of those rare digital games that people who don’t often play or like games will like. (As well as people who do play them.) The basic gimmick is that you control a character who has to solve little physical puzzles. You do it by typing out the names of objects you’d like to have that will let you solve the puzzle. The variety of objects which can appear is pretty amazing: so far the only things we haven’t been able to make are copyrighted or are abstractions. (You can even make some abstractions appear if they have a common personification. Type “death” and a little grim reaper will appear–and then he’ll do what the grim reaper does.) When you solve the puzzle, a little star appears that you can collect and move on to the next puzzle.
We did the first couple of puzzles the obvious way. Give a chef something he wants, ok, a rolling pin. Give a fireman something he wants, ok, an axe. This was when we discovered the game’s main problem, which is that the control interface really sucks. I tried to pick up the axe and hand it to the fireman, but instead ended up killing him with the axe. Start that puzzle again.
A couple of puzzles later, I decided to try more exotic solutions. We were supposed to clean up three items of garbage in a park and get rid of a fly. It turns out that your character can just pick up two of the items of garbage and the fly himself, leaving only an item of garbage high up in a tree. So I thought, let’s get God involved. I type God and he dutifully appears. God in this game appears to take the position that he helps those who help themselves, so he just wanders around enjoying the park. My strategy not being successful, I thought, eh, let’s get Satan and see what happens. Satan appears. God kills him. Hm. So I summon a bazooka and see if we can get God out of the way. God doesn’t care for that and kills my character.
Let’s try again. How about “apocalypse”? This produces a nuclear weapon. Click on it and it counts down to activation. One nuclear blast later and the star actually appears, indicating that I have successfully cleaned up the garbage in the park. Unfortunately I am dead and can’t claim the star. So let’s try again with “bomb shelter” plus “apocalypse”. Click on nuclear weapon, get in shelter. The ground crumbles and the shelter falls through. The star appears but I am dead.
So another strategy. Clean up most of the park by hand. Now summon a flamethrower. Burn the tree with the garbage in it to the ground. Voila! Puzzle solved. The park is now clean of garbage.
What’s fun is that there are many equally creative non-violent solutions to many puzzles. It can be aggravating when things that should work don’t work: the game’s internal logic is sometimes pretty arbitrary or counter-intuitive. But still, it’s a hoot.
More importantly, I think it’s about as great an educational game as you’re ever going to find. If you wanted to motivate kids to learn to spell and to broaden their vocabulary with a game, this is about ten thousand times better than the kinds of serious learning games that educational designers typically come up with.